Opinion

Kent

Talk quietly and carry a small stick

Simon Kent

By Simon Kent, Special to the Toronto Sun

U.S. President Barack Obama walks from his residence to the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, September 10, 2013. (REUTERS/Jason Reed)

U.S. President Barack Obama walks from his residence to the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, September 10, 2013. (REUTERS/Jason Reed)

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Words are like arrows. Once you shoot them, there’s no going back.

This is a fundamental truth of effective diplomacy that U.S. President Barack Obama is slowly learning on the job.

A pity the world’s most famous community organizer didn’t realize it before he assumed his role as leader of the free world.

For the past three weeks, we’ve witnessed a stunning display of diplomatic bungling and backtracking by Obama, most of it predicated on the president’s own sloppy use of words when he warned the Syrian government of dire consequences if it used poisonous gas against its own people.

That was the casual red line remark that has come back to haunt Obama and colours everything he has done since in his mystifying, self-contradicting, everything-and-the-kitchen-sink (perhaps) handling of the Syria crisis.

On the one hand, the president insists chemical weapon use in Syria amounts to a global moral crisis.

If it goes unanswered, then a future template is set that will comfort every dictator on Earth.

On the other, the president is trying to sell any military action as targeted and limited in hopes of winning over politicians who are skeptical about ever voting “yes” to the proposal in either legislative chamber.

Maybe they just don’t like the idea of sending U.S. bombers to be al-Qaida’s air force.

The truth is, Obama demeans his high office by sloppy statecraft with the U.S. left looking weak, vacillating and indecisive as a consequence.

Say what you like about both Bush presidents — and you will — neither could be accused of failing to match words with deeds.

When they said they were going to do something, they did it.

Could you imagine either Bush threatening action that would be “just muscular enough not to get mocked” or meant as “a shot across the bows”?

Talk quietly and carry a small stick is the Obama administration’s preferred method of international engagement.

Remember, less than 24 hours after Secretary of State John Kerry made an authoritative case for military action against Syria, President Obama reversed course and decided to take the case to Congress. Just like that.

“We will be able to hold (Syrian President) Bashar al-Assad accountable without engaging in troops on the ground or any other prolonged kind of effort in a very limited, very targeted, short-term effort that degrades his capacity to deliver chemical weapons without assuming responsibility for Syria’s civil war,” Kerry then warned during an appearance with British Foreign Secretary William Hague. “That is exactly what we are talking about doing — unbelievably small, limited kind of effort.”

Which prompts the question: If it is so small, why bother?

As wobbly and improvised as the Obama administration’s handling of Syria might be, U.S. pressure did at least force Assad’s admission that he had chemical weapons. Getting him to acknowledge the obvious seems to count as progress for Obama, I guess.

Now Russia is in charge of dealing with Syria and the chemical weapons in its stockpile, and the world has no choice but to wait and see what happens next.

Meanwhile, the civil war goes on and more people die and more refugees flood into neighbouring countries and the crisis is no closer to resolution than it was when the U.S. first threatened its hopey-changey-maybe military intervention.

Barack Obama and John Kerry have become the disposable heroes of prevarication and diplomacy is the poorer for it.

 


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